3 questions with: Phil Newton
Phil Newton serves as senior pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Germantown, Tenn. Newton planted South Woods Baptist on April 19, 1987 and has served as senior pastor for 23 years since.
1. How would you prioritize issues in bringing about biblical change in a local church?
Phil Newton: First, I would teach the Gospel. I know that sounds so basic yet we make a mistake in thinking that all those attending our churches understand the Gospel. Moreover, we must help them learn to articulate and apply the Gospel. In the process of expositionally teaching the Gospel, you are helping your congregation to think biblically. Once they begin thinking biblically, then it is not as difficult to bring about biblical reformation.
Now, to a few priorities: First, prioritize expository preaching. Take the congregation through books of the Bible, explaining and applying the text week after week. Second, slowly work to implement changes in the worship service, such as adding Scripture readings, times for confession and intercession and doctrinally rich hymnody (whether old hymns or newer ones is not the issue).
Third, work on raising the bar of leadership qualifications. Apply consistently an expectation that church leaders will meet the qualifications found in Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Whether or not you are able to shift to a plurality or pastors, or elders, is not as great a matter as the character of leaders in your church. Fourth, once strong leaders begin to function in the church, tackle church membership issues. This will include church discipline and developing a legitimate church roll.
2. What has been the most difficult change you have made at South Woods?
Newton: The most difficult change was moving toward a Gospel-centered ministry. By that I mean, the Gospel ultimately driving and shaping everything that is done in the church. Whatever programs or ministries the church has must further the Gospel or reflect the Gospel or they must be removed. We met with stiff opposition as the Lord worked this change in my life and the church practice. If I were doing it over I would (1) try to be more patient in bringing people along and (2) invest time in teaching men the basics of the faith. I did the latter a couple years into the transition and found it immensely profitable.
3. What should a church planter emphasize during the first year or two once the church has launched? What about a new pastor in an established church?
Newton: The church planter is establishing his and the new church's identity in the community. What are they known for? What are they about? That's what he must focus early on so that the community recognizes that the church is about the good news, humble service, healthy relationships centered in the Gospel and passion for Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. To do this the church planter will not only spend lots of time teaching the Word in corporate, small group and private settings but he will also need to model the Christian life. So, major on teaching, building relationships, fostering healthy worship and ministry and serving others in the community.
The established church is already known for some things in the community. The new pastor must discover what these things are, evaluate them in light of Scripture and then slowly work toward biblical reformation. He does not need to make radical changes in the first couple of years. He needs to invest in building relationships with his people, excelling in pastoral care, helping them to delight in God's Word, showing them responsibility to take the Gospel to the world and giving them a vision for the church as "a display of Christ's glory" (to borrow Mark Dever's phrase).